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People in need of long-term care in Maine have few places to go

Mainers in need of long-term care have very few options as facilities across the state lose workers or close altogether

MAINE, USA — The worker shortage affecting so many businesses has plunged the nursing home industry into crisis mode. Long before the pandemic, this industry was struggling. Add in COVID and experts and politicians are in a mad scramble to find solutions.

According to the Maine CDC, there have been close to 5,000 cases of COVID-19 associated with nursing homes since the start of the pandemic.

"COVID, by the way, has wreaked havoc on this workforce, like lots of workers have left before the vaccine was even around because it's just emotionally draining to watch people die," Maine Council on Aging Executive Director Jess Maurer said.

Working in the healthcare industry during the pandemic hasn't been easy and according to a survey of thousands of health care workers across the country done by the American Medical Association, 50%, yes, half of health care workers surveyed, reported reaching the point of burnout during the pandemic. The survey includes employees at long-term care facilities.

Here in Maine, just in the last month, there have been four long-term care facilities close. Experts say the main contributor to these closures is in fact the workforce shortage. Maurer said part of the problem is the pay scale. She said the nursing home employees can be paid more working in fast food or at a grocery store.

With fewer facilities open and nursing home workers dropping out of the business, there are fewer and fewer options for families. 

"I don't know on how many waitlists, I don't know how many, and quite frankly, I don't expect to hear from any of them," said Sharon Ayers.

Sharon and her sister Brenda Pollack spent months trying to find a nursing home for their mom, Theresa Pelletier. Sharon and Brenda live in southern Maine. The closest elderly care facility they could find is hours away in Bangor.

“Every part of me just wanted to put her in my car and take her home but because of her condition it wasn't the safest thing for her,” Brenda said. 

Brenda and Sharon understand the problem.

"Truly I don't blame the people working there," Sharon said. "They're the ones showing up and doing the work."

Theresa Pelletier has been in the Bangor facility for about four months. Sharon and Brenda have tried to move their mom somewhere close but there is still nothing available.

Over the last few years, state lawmakers have introduced a number of bills to better support long-term care facilities. There was also a Commission to Study Long-term Care Workforce Issues done by the state in January 2020. The study had 18 committee members, including five state legislators and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.

Some of the recommendations from the study are increasing wages for direct care workers to at least 125% of the minimum wage, expanding support for direct care workers, and providing more training for these care workers to grow within the industry.

Representative Jessica Fay (D-Raymond) was on the committee and has grown passionate about the issue of elder care in the state. She said she thinks Maine is on the right path passing bills to increase MaineCare reimbursements and allocate money to pay direct caregivers more.

Senator Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin) was also on the committee. He said that he's concerned the funding might be too little, too late for many of these facilities.

"I don't want to act like the sky is falling, but it's raining really, really hard," he said.

The funding doesn't stop at the state level. Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins and New Hampshire Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen led a group of 50 senators in a bipartisan push urging Health and Human Services to release $25.5 billion dollars to direct care facilities. This federal funding will be distributed to healthcare facilities that have been serving on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our healthcare providers, particularly long-term care facilities and rural hospitals, and we cannot ignore the financial realities they face. Three nursing homes have closed in Maine in just the past month and others have struggled to stay open,” said Senator Collins in a press release.

As facilities across the state wait for funding to be distributed so they can stay open, the mandate for all health care workers in Maine to be vaccinated is looming. That means by next month. if a health care worker chooses not to get vaccinated and loses their job, that could cause even more facilities to close. 

"If they lose just one, and they will lose just one, they'll have to close," Maurer said.

Sharon Ayers and Brenda Pollack are going through what so many Maine families are experiencing, "We didn't realize. It wasn't part of our life and then when we got there, we were like there has to be better this can't be it," Pollock said.

For families in need of care for their loved ones, visit the Ombudsman Programs website.

Tune into NEWS CENTER Maine Thursday at 6 for more.